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Budget Figures Stir Debate at SW

By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON — March 27, 2007 — A complicated discussion about Sullivan West’s finances pushed the board’s budget meeting into a full third hour Thursday evening.
The high school library in Lake Huntington was jam-packed with audience members, many of whom sported Sullivan West CARES (Citizens Advocating Responsible Education and Spending) stickers.
Interest was high regarding the option to reopen the Delaware Valley campus in Callicoon, but the bulk of the discussion – and ensuing debate – focused on the “status quo” proposal to maintain and enhance buildings and programs only in Lake Huntington and Jeffersonville this coming school year.
“It is a lean budget,” said Supt. Alan Derry. “I have never in 22 years presented a budget this lean. It’s ‘scary lean.’”
But after he and School Business Administrator Bob Miller finished presenting the board with the latest numbers, board member Shaun Sensiba made his own surprise presentation.
Though jeered by audience members who thought he was offering an “alternate” budget, Sensiba showed calculations that indicated double-digit spending growth in virtually every expense – in contrast with Miller’s figures showing mostly single-digit increases.
The difference in numbers was attributable to the way both men performed their calculations.
Miller, a veteran preparer of school budgets, took a standard approach of comparing projected spending for 2007-’08 to the spending amounts listed in the 2006-’07 budget, commonly known as “budget-to-budget.”
Sensiba, a former IBM financial analyst, compared the ’07-’08 projected spending to the actual amounts expended thus far in the ’06-’07 school year, plus what is anticipated to be spent by the end of the school’s fiscal year in June.
For example, Miller’s presentation showed a 7 percent spending increase for instructional administration and improvement, while Sensiba’s figures showed an 18 percent increase. Likewise, Miller’s calculations indicated a 12 percent decrease in spending on instructional media, while Sensiba’s numbers pointed to a 2 percent increase.
Sensiba argued that his figures were more accurate since they are taken from the actual amounts spent (and expected to be spent) this year, rather than Miller’s reliance on the budgeted amounts.
For example, the ’07-’08 budgeted amount for capital and other expenses – $169,700 – is unchanged from the ’06-’07 budgeted amount. Thus in Miller’s presentation, it is listed as a 0 percent increase.
But Sensiba explained that the district expects to spend only $147,000 for capital needs this year, and he felt that should be the number used for comparison. So $169,700 would actually represent a 15 percent increase in spending over this year.
Sensiba used those numbers to argue that the proposed $32,209,756 budget will raise total spending by 10 percent, rather than Miller’s far more modest 0.9 percent total increase.
Sensiba was criticized by fellow board member Anna Niemann for not providing these calculations ahead of time to the rest of the board, but Sensiba insisted he was only speaking for himself and not trying to micromanage.
Regardless, the real debate swirled around the reasons why this year’s budget is expected to be “underspended.”
According to Sensiba, 15 percent of the taxes collected this school year didn’t go to any educational purposes – $2.6 million worth.
“It went into the bank,” he remarked.
He praised the administration for keeping expenses down but warned that, as a result, increasing expenses for the next school year could not be justified.
“My feeling is this is not an affordable rate of growth,” he said. “If it is tight, then we have some serious problems.”
“I agree with most of what Shaun said… conceptually,” remarked Derry.
But, he added, Miller’s calculations were correct and reliable – and unexpected events like a one-time $300,000 break in health insurance premiums in December contributed to an unusually large reduction in expenses.
The real task, Derry said, is to create a budget that takes everything into account, including the potential for overspending and underspending.
Even with a budget driven mostly by contractual expenses (on the order of 80-85 percent), Derry said he and Miller argued about how much or how little to spend in the proposed budget. That resulted in a proposal with virtually no flexibility, he said.
“We’re banking on the governor’s money,” Derry stated – a dicey proposition in any year until the NYS Legislature and governor agree on a state budget (which has yet to happen this year).
Derry reiterated that he and Miller aren’t telling the board how to spend taxpayers’ money, but they both recommend that the excess funds from this year be saved for future “rainy days,” along with some tax relief.
“We’re giving you a cushion for next year,” Derry explained.
The rest of the board subsequently debated how much of that surplus to return to taxpayers and how much to keep for unanticipated expenses – a longtime issue at Sullivan West, which at one point was violating NYS Education Dept. law by keeping far more than the legally permissible surplus from year to year. (State law demands that any undesignated monies in excess of 2 percent of the total budget be returned to taxpayers in the form of reduced taxes.)
Miller was often silent through much of the argument, letting Derry advance the administration’s stance. But when asked, he was frank in his assessment of the proposed budget.
“I think we are matching the actual expenses with what the tax levy is,” he remarked.
Whether the board majority agrees or not will likely be determined at the April 11 meeting (7 p.m. at the high school), where the board is expected to adopt the budget.
Voters will then have the chance to approve or reject it on May 15.
The next board meeting is scheduled for this Thursday at 7 p.m. at the high school. The budget will be the primary issue on the agenda.

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